Monday, June 9, 2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

Not long after Peter Mathiessen's death on 5 April of this year, I heard a re-broadcast of a radio interview
with him.  He spoke of his early experimentation with LSD, which led him to realise that it was not going to deliver any long-term enlightenment. He gave up psychodelics for Zen Buddhism and began a lifelong practice of meditation. During that interview, he made a passing mention of  In Paradise, his novel about a meditation and prayer retreat at Auschwitz in the mid-1990s. (Mathiessen had in fact attended three Zen retreats there.) He died three days before the novel's official publication.

After labouring through the Mr. Watson trilogy, which I felt was about two books longer than was really necessary, I had some qualms about picking up this novel, but they were misguided. Mathiessen did not grow successively more prolix with each of his books; In Paradise is as lean and spare as its author, yet far from insubstantial.

In the NY Times Review of Books, Donna Rifkind writes that the novel is "so suffused with qualms about its legitimacy that it stifles its own anguish" and complains that the narrator's unresolved bafflement will frustrate readers. My response to that? Rubbish! Who expects Peter Mathiessen to write a novel about a mixed-faith gathering at Auschwitz in a tidy, plastic James Patterson package?  I don't think for a minute that Matthiessen had qualms about the novel's legitimacy, nor do I feel that the book stifled anything at all:  like any skilled meditator, Mathiessen watched what arose at the retreat, observed the jumble of emotions, noted them, and let them pass. He neither stifled nor amplified them. Yes, reading this novel is discomfiting. As it should be.

Clements Olin is a Polish-American academician come for the retreat although he has not registered as a participant. He has come, he says, to do research. A couple of teen-agers in Oswiecim find him waiting for transportation and graciously offer to show him their town and then drive him out to his destination. Although their warmth, good cheer and hospitality touch him, Olin cannot stop himself when he realises they are oblivious to the dark history of the place. He knows he's being rude and abusive, but their ignorance is more than he can bear.
Leaning forward to be heard over the auto's clatter, he asks Mirek and Wanda if they knew that prewar Oswiecim had been a mostly Jewish community renowned for its hospitality: its name, he has read, may derive from a Yiddish word meaning 'guests.' ...
After Oswiecim's Jews were transported to the Cracow ghetto, their houses were occupied by Christians, that snoop's forebears doubtless among them. And the girl's family, too, perhaps, in their old "Yittish" house. Were you young people never told, he says, that after the war, when those few returning refugees made their way back home to Poland to reclaim their lives, they were reviled and driven off and sometimes bludgeoned and occasionally, when too persistent, killed? "Nearly two thousand Jews were murdered in this country after the war," he says. "Didn't you know that?"
"Murtered?" They have stopped their fooling. They look shocked -- less by the statistic, he suspects, than by their passenger's intensity. "No, sir! Sorry! We were never learned such things!" ...
In a voice gone hoarse, the passenger inquires, "How do you feel? Being here, I mean? How does it feel to come to such a place? In your own country?" The young Poles exchange looks of alarm. Why would their guest ask them such a thing so many years after those shrouded times that even the old people claim they can scarcely remember? He presses them. Hadn't they noticed that old railway embedded in the road? Surely they knew that before those first transports of Jews arrived from western Europe, thousands of Polish prisoners had already been exterminated in this place -- your own damned people, boys and girls, he wants to yell, right here behind these walls! Wake up! When they answer at last, they speak in whispers. They say, It was too long ago. They say, We cannot even imagine it. They say, We don't know how to think about something so incredible -- not, he notes, "so terrible" but "so incredible," so far beyond belief, as if no sane intelligence could comprehend, far less accept, that such enormous horror could take place in this quiet neighborhood of the girl's hometown. She is sniffling.
The teen-aged Poles unceremoniously drop Olin at the gates and speed away, leaving him to walk into the camp and meet the retreat leader, Ben Lama, and the very mixed group assembled there. Why are they there? That's not easily answered.
Auschwitz I, with its upstairs museum, is all most visitors, descending for a quick half day from their round-trip charter bus from Cracow, might feel inclined to see; he imagines them reeling back aboard, undone by so much evidence of huge cold crimes. But Ben Lama's would-be witness bearers are no tourists, and neither are they Holocaust voyeurs come to indulge a morbid curiosity; most seem to be here on painful missions incompletely understood, by themselves perhaps least of all.
I've never visited Auschwitz. I live in southeast Asia, however, and I've visited the memorial sites dedicated to the slaughter of millions of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge years. Like nearly every other visitor to these sites, I've spent a few hours there and come away feeling horrified. An alternative, Mathiessen suggests, is to stay longer, to "sit with it".
One shocked woman has collapsed and must be helped back to her room, but she soon sends word that she intends to see this through: she will not retreat to Cracow and fly home. "That's the choice," Ben Lama comments publicly at the noon meal. "We pass through quickly, sickened and depressed, or we stay for days and sit with it in meditation; we immerse ourselves and are transformed."
Some of the retreatants are German Christians; others are Israeli Jews. Unsurprisingly, hostilities between them flare quickly. Someone suggests that many "ordinary Germans" participated in the persecutions under duress. Assessing guilt is a tricky business, unless the accused revels in his deeds.
Like perpetrators of atrocities worldwide, Rudolf Hoess would lay all blame on his superiors, describing himself as "a normal person overcome by a ruthless concept of obedience." This appraisal of his own character seems almost rational when compared to the vainglory of Adolf Eichmann, for whom the knowledge that he helped consign five million Jewish human beings to their deaths was a source of "extraordinary satisfaction."
"I shall leap into my grave laughing," Eichmann said. ...
Then again, the 'normal person overcome by the ruthless concept of obedience' doesn't appear to have suffered many misgivings.
"My family, to be sure, were well-provided for here in Auschwitz," Hoess would write. "Every wish expressed by my wife or children was granted them. The children could live a free and untrammeled life. My wife's garden was a paradise of flowers." The Hoesses and their four offspring, waited on by emaciated slaves, inhabited a brute heaven of gourmet delicacies, silks, furs, jewelry, and assorted loot stripped from doomed prisoners. His wife would sigh, "I want to live here till I die..."
Professor Clements Olin is a scholar, an historian. He's not a particularly spiritual man, nor is he especially receptive to supernatural phenomena. He is not, however, immune to the power of the concentration camp's history on his subconscious mind. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he seems drawn to certain spots on the Auschwitz grounds, and he grows increasingly aware that he is searching for something.
During meditation, breathing mindfully moment after moment, his awareness opens and dissolves into snow light. But out of nowhere, just as he had feared, the platform's emptiness is filled by a multitude of faceless shapes milling close around him. He feels the vibration of their footfalls.
One night after dinner, there is music, and most of the retreatants join in a spontaneous, inexplicable, almost delirious dance. Those who participated in it describe it as a sublime, transcendent experience; those who sat and observed are appalled at its inappropriateness. Olin marvels at the sense of unity, as if the dance had been a testament to the resilience of joy, and then he remarks on its transience.
... the tension dispelled by the Dancing has been seeping back. In this toxic atmosphere, good intentions are eroding like the noses of stone gargoyles on cathedral peaks.
During the course of the retreat, Olin grows close to a young, novice nun who defiantly speaks up to apologise for the complicity of the Catholic Church. His feelings for Sister Catherine are confused, veering between admiration and attraction; her own feelings for the Church aren't much clearer. She is adamant that her vocation is solid -- she is destined to serve the Lord -- but her insistence that women should be ordained as priests has already earned her a probationary status. The priest sent to oversee her at the retreat is not unsympathetic, but he too is confined by "a ruthless concept of obedience", albeit to a different authority than Rudolph Hoess.
Catherine is over-educated for a novice, he tells Olin, and a little willful -- a bit deficient in Christian humility, some would say. And when she discovers that advocacy of women's ordination may be reclassified as delicta graviora, 'a grave sin against the Church,' in the same category as the rape of children ...
"My God," says Olin. "That's grotesque! Insane!"
"Yes, it is," says the priest. "The Vatican has gone insane."
Olin does leave the retreat a transformed man, probably much more so than he would have predicted, and he is far from understanding the nature and implications of the changes. And I can say the same for myself as this book's reader. I set it down with a certain sense of bafflement, to use Donna Rifkind's word, and I'm at peace with that. I'm willing to sit with it and see where it goes.

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